Notes: Pudge closes All-Star gap

Notes: Pudge closes All-Star gap

MILWAUKEE -- Ivan Rodriguez's gap behind Jason Varitek in American League All-Star balloting is down to just over 27,000 votes, according to the latest totals released Tuesday.

Varitek's lead in his quest for his second consecutive All-Star start behind the plate is just over half of what it was two weeks ago. Rodriguez, looking for his 12th All-Star start, had 803,964 in Tuesday's update, and Varitek had 831,154. It's the closest race in the Majors.

If the deficit is going to close, it'll have to happen mainly through online voting. In-stadium balloting ended at Comerica Park last homestand, and voting at Boston's Fenway Park continues through Wednesday. Once voting at all stadiums ends this weekend, online balloting at will be the only way to vote. That continues until Thursday, June 29 at 11:59 p.m. ET, with starters and reserves for both leagues being unveiled on Sunday, July 2 in an ESPN broadcast.

Rodriguez is the only Tigers position player with a chance at cracking the starting lineup. First baseman Chris Shelton and second baseman Placido Polanco are both fifth at their positions. Meanwhile, Magglio Ordonez remains 12th among AL outfielders.

Whether the Tigers could end up with the starting pitcher is another question, one not decided by fan balloting. Kenny Rogers' 200th career victory Sunday at Chicago made him the first AL hurler to 10 wins this year and a probable candidate to take the hill for the American Leaguers for the July 11 Midsummer Classic at Pittsburgh's PNC Park. Rookie Justin Verlander isn't far behind at eight wins, and Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman have seven each.

Thrown a curve: Bonderman's nasty strikeout totals and nastier slider are making him one of the more feared pitchers in the American League over the last few weeks. Yet the biggest difference manager Jim Leyland and others see in the 23-year-old right-hander is a renewed enjoyment in the game and a lifting of the weight of expectations since he jumped from Class A to the Majors at age 20.

"I think you're seeing the product of a kid who was probably rushed a little bit," Leyland said, "and who was probably under a lot of pressure early."

Leyland treaded carefully with his answer because he didn't want to critique the decision to call up Bonderman at such a young age. After all, Leyland made the call to put Verlander in a Major League rotation is his second full professional season and add 21-year-old Joel Zumaya to his bullpen. Leyland also wasn't faced with filling out a roster for a 2003 Tigers club en route to 119 losses.

But in Bonderman, he sees a guy now learning how to better use what he has.

"I think you're seeing maturity at its best," Leyland said. "You saw electric stuff early, and now you're seeing a pitcher with electric stuff. His competitive spirit probably worked against him."

The biggest step in maturity, Bonderman believes, was parenthood. He became a father on June 1 when daughter Mailee was born. Through the challenges of caring for his baby, Bonderman has still thrived in his job.

"I think a lot has to do with the arrival of my girl," Bonderman said Monday night after his second consecutive 12-strikeout performance. "I cherish every moment I can spend with her. I still put a lot of pressure on myself, but I'm not taking this game [home] with me."

Bonderman's victory Monday made him Detroit's fourth seven-game winner of the season. It's the earliest date on the calendar that the Tigers have had four pitchers with seven wins since at least 1957, according to research from the club's media relations department and on

Additionally, Bonderman was the third Tiger in the last 23 years with six consecutive strikeouts. The last Tiger to fan six straight also did it at Milwaukee, though Nelson Cruz's feat on July 8, 2000, came at County Stadium. Juan Berenguer did it on May 12, 1983. The team record is shared by Denny McLain (June 15, 1965, vs. Boston) and John Hiller (October 1, 1970, vs. Cleveland).

They meet again: Brewers right-hander Rick Helling remembers a stop on the Texas Rangers' Winter Caravan in the early 1990s. A teenage fan approached Helling, who was the Rangers' first-round draft pick in 1992.

"He came to the Caravan to get an autograph, I'll never forget it," Helling said. "He was like, 'I'm going to play for the Rangers some day!'"

The teenager was Craig Monroe, a Texarkana, Tex., native drafted by the Rangers in the eighth round in 1995. In 2001, Helling and Monroe were Major League teammates.

"Sure enough, he got some big league time," Helling said. "I've known about him for a long time."

Monroe confirmed the story and added another. Monroe played his second Major League game in right field with Helling on the mound on July 29, 2001. Helling threw a complete-game shutout, and Monroe hit his first Major League home run in a 2-0 Rangers victory.

Monroe and Helling met again Tuesday, this time on opposing sides. Again, it was an unlikely pairing. Helling was activated from the disabled list to make his first appearance since April 10, and Monroe started in left field for the first time in nearly two weeks. He hadn't played at all since serving as the DH last Wednesday against the Devil Rays.

Having his legs under him: For weeks, both Todd Jones and Leyland refused to blame Jones' hamstring injury for his early-season problems, saying that they won't make that an excuse. Now that Jones has regained a good share of his velocity, with his fastball now back to around 93 mph, Leyland admits it was a reason.

"I think it's a big factor," Leyland said. "We even discussed it a few times when the velocity wasn't there. This guy had a setback at the [World Baseball Classic], and he had a setback early in the year."

The added power isn't evidenced on strikeouts. Leyland, for one, doesn't even judge by radar guns.

"Usually the hitters [and their reactions] tell you a lot," Leyland said. "When Jonesy's got late life, that's the Jonesy we signed. He's got velocity and he's got some late life."

Coming up: The Tigers finish their Interleague road trip at Miller Park Wednesday afternoon with a 2:05 p.m. ET matinee. Nate Robertson (7-3, 3.43) will try for his third straight win opposite Milwaukee lefty Chris Capuano (7-4, 3.30), winner of his last two decisions.

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.